The Economies of Literary Arts
Africa Rising has come down to the world of fashionable vocabulary. It is Africa’s hopeful equivalent of what became known before this century dawned as Asia’s century. It means Africa has become an unavoidable factor in global economic growth: its resources, including the discovery of hydrocarbons in all corners of its world and the re-structuring and divestiture of telecommunication industries have made it important for global capital investment; easy connectivity to the world, high revenue for multinational corporations and in secondary terms fertile grounds for consumer goods from Europe, the United States and Asia as an enlarging middle class becomes more cosmopolitan with varying tastes for these goods.
It means in another dimension, new growth players from Asia particularly China and India and in the last couple of years Singapore. China’s trade with Africa for instance has increased to over $170 billion in the last decade. Africa currently has about 1million Chinese migrants engaged in all sorts of businesses- from government bilateral construction of malls, ports and harbors, rail and road to illegal gold mining meant for indigenous people. It is not only bilateral government growth but also a private sector engagement as grants and loans are contracted from private banks and financial institutions besides the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The field for Africa’s participation in global economies is thus bigger and more diversified now.
The visible signs are the infrastructure developments of malls, skyscrapers of multinationals seen in Accra, Nairobi, Lagos and Lusaka and perhaps the biggest of all- the coming regenerations of spasms of Kigali into a modern Singapore alike by the Surbana Construction Company of the country. These developments in turn have brought more expertise back– African Diaspora who would otherwise have been stalked for lack of opportunities in the financial cities of London, New York , Chicago, the Middle East and elsewhere. But it also raises the question of growth if all the agricultural produce- from canned vegetables to flowers have import labels whilst the produce of Africa’s own agricultural suffer from post-harvest loses and do not find the markets in these malls. It does not help to capitalize small growers and peasants. Growth should not be quantified in beautiful malls but the country origins of the goods they sell.
Literary arts or the arts in general can only profit more from this confidence of growth and the creation of space for creativity. I use the word more because literary arts in Africa have since the post-colonial era of the 1960s constantly lived up to expectations and re-invented itself. It did not die like many of the state enterprises- farms, hotels, aviation, civil services and private businesses due to instability, repression and civil wars in the last 40 years. In the late 1970s and into the 80s, the oil crisis engineered by the OPEC came, leading to money lending by OPEC to Africa thus fueling the debt crisis of the 1980s to its current hang-over. At that critical time when Africa lost some of its scientists and economic managers, its writers ensured that they were at the forefront of drawing minds to dictatorship, economic exploitation and human rights abuses. Those who had to leave the continent to do so, did. It was even at that time we had our first Nobel laureate in Literature in 1986 and subsequently some of the major awards including the Booker Prize and thankfully the creations of more indigenous ones .So if there is an Africa Rising story, we should first acknowledge the contribution of literary artists to it then sometimes making it look as if it is now emerging. If we take Things Fall Apart from 1957 as the starting point but not the start of African writing, we are into six decades of continuous intellectual output by generations.
There is no doubt however that this Rising whose economic dimension will without doubt fortify its cultural frontiers has already seen the emergence of extensive media of expression: the telecommunication sectors and its plurality - from ICT and by-products of internet and social media are far greater than 20 years ago. In Ghana as it in other parts of the continent we have over 100 FM stations and dozens of local TV channels. Some of the programmes are devoted to the Arts such as the Ghana Writers Project’s . The story of Storymoja itself is a beneficial of Africa Rising and global connectivity. It is so with the operations of The Lumina Foundation in Lagos which runs a very successful mobile library system with over 400 branches through the support of Ecobank Foundation as well as the old and teetering literary organizations.
These successes so far have everything to do with promising economic growth of banks, industries including the private sector and mobility of talents. The joy of Lupita Nyong’ o, in 12 Years A Slave the 1841 narrative of Solomon Northup in Louisiana plantation of the United States which won her and Kenya Oscar status has country market value that runs into millions of dollars; a story of universal historical appeal told through the conductive business environment of America.
When this year Nigeria became the biggest economy in Africa displacing South Africa, one of the factors of the re-basing which led to this result (of Nigeria’s GDP of from $277 to $510 billion) had to do partly with the arts as its multibillion dollar cinema industry had never been factored into the calculation of the Gross Domestic Product let alone its per capita. If like me you have your doubts of the real meaning in substantive economic sense of this, at least we know of employment to screenplay writers, directors, producers, marketers within and outside Africa. Literature is thus a good beneficial of good public policy and growth. It is never a development isolation instrument as it is with all productive commodities- soft and hard. That is why literary arts flourishes in advanced economies and not so good in developing ones.
But whatever benefits this Rising is bringing, its literary growth is still slow and rootless. The private sectors – of publishing and marketing firms (with the exception of South Africa) and even creative schools and institutions maybe doing well for small numbers but not where hundreds of thousands of youth and potential readers and writers have to depend on public libraries and resources via inadequate or non-existent budgetary support from government. New strategies will have to give : application to connect technology to reading habits of the youth. They are already familiar with this media even in villages’. A fulsome and highly indulgent connection should help the Africa Rising story which is an ongoing project tied to other economic factors.
*Ivor Agyeman-Duah is 2014-15 Michaelmas-Trinity Research Associate at The African Studies Centre, University of Oxford. This essay is culled from Storymoja Hay Festival Magazine, Nairobi.